Still hope Etzebeth makes cut

Eben Etzebeth (Gallo Images)
Eben Etzebeth (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - The possibility that the Springboks’ currently top-rated lock Eben Etzebeth may miss Saturday’s Rugby Championship match against Australia in Brisbane raises a slightly uncomfortable question ... might the best South African second-row combination by the time the game comes around be in faraway France?

GALLERY: Boks train in Brisbane

It was revealed on Tuesday that ace No. 4 Etzebeth, who will be a massive factor in the Bok quest to get a foothold in close-quarters combat, and is also a considerable force at both lineout and scrum time, is labouring with a stomach bug and considered a 'serious concern' for the clash (12:05 SA time).

Should the aggressive 21-year-old be ruled out, coach Heyneke Meyer’s specialist options among the available squad stocks are limited to Flip van der Merwe and Juandre Kruger, although Willem Alberts – much more accustomed to loose-forward duty – has the necessary physical attributes to cover lock as well.

At least Van der Merwe and Kruger (the latter now based with Racing Metro) are a familiar alliance both in the Bok set-up and also much more commonly for the Bulls until Kruger’s recent departure for northern climes.

But after a wholly less impressive game against Argentina in Mendoza than Kruger delivered in the first-round meeting at FNB Stadium, there has been strong talk that Meyer ideally wishes to bring back together Etzebeth and Van der Merwe in a rugged alliance on Saturday, sacrificing Kruger’s mobility and lineout skills for pure Bok brawn.

But the potential sacrifice now of Etzebeth, who is about as complete a second-rower as the Boks could wish to currently field, would be a major blow, even if there are always concerns about his temper staying suitably in check.

Frankly, unless almost certain 'emergency' infusion Kruger rediscovers his A-game in a hurry, the non-presence of Etzebeth would arguably leave some observers wondering whether the most Test-proven and feared South African combination at lock lies many thousands of kilometres away ... at French Top 14 club Toulon.

There, old Bulls and Springbok favourites Bakkies Botha and Danie Rossouw have been doing duty in the heat of tight-five combat for European champions Toulon in early season.

Botha would be the most appealingly obvious like-for-like replacement for Etzebeth, given his own natural “bruiser” qualities, and Meyer has said before that a recall at some stage for the 76-capper cannot be ruled out.

He is, by all accounts, in excellent physical shape for a 33-year-old and much the same applies to versatile customer Rossouw, 35 and still playing with the lion’s share of the zest of his younger days.

The one bit of reassuring news on the Etzebeth situation was that late on Tuesday night in Brisbane (mid-afternoon, SA time), a Bok insider revealed to Sport24 that the young enforcer was 'looking a bit better' and that team doctor Craig Roberts was also feeling more chipper about his chances of recovery in time.

It is understood that no reinforcement from outside the squad would be considered until Etzebeth was definitely ruled out, although it would be cutting things fine for a player to cross time zones from either South Africa or elsewhere and be in suitable readiness to aid the cause in the Queensland metropolis on Saturday.

The Bok team is to be announced on Wednesday, and if Etzebeth is either not able to play or will perhaps do so without quite his usual levels of lustre, it only seems to make more and more sense for Meyer to restore Bismarck du Plessis – as is rumoured he will – to the hooker’s berth at the expense of Adriaan Strauss.

Alongside Etzebeth, Sharks strongman Du Plessis is the likeliest Bok tight-five combatant to be able to get in Wallaby faces ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
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